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March 25, 2008

British Columbia's Bent-Rod Bonanza

Downsize your tackle and get more bang for your buck

That earnest inquiry, from a gray-haired gent who hails from central Canada, came at dinner the first evening of a too-brief visit I made to the central British Columbia coast in early September. He'd said he'd been fishing the coast every year for a long time, but this was the first time he'd seen a group come loaded with little spinning and baitcast outfits.

"Well, we brought in four silver salmon and one nice spring [chinook] this morning on that gear,"I explained, noting that we'd lost another to a downrigger cable we'd failed to remove from the water quickly enough. Since the late-season salmon fishing last year was unusually slow, that represented one of the day's better catches. I could see the wheels turning around some method-to-madness cog in the old fellow's mind.
 
Curious Glances
On this light-line expedition, Paul Sharman - with www.fishandfly.com in England and a contributor to Sport Fishing magazine - joined me along with my  frequent angling buddy (and spousal unit), Jackie. While the success of our catch that morning may have convinced the angler at dinner that light gear worked, the numbers couldn't convey what a kick in the butt the downsized reels, rods and line meant. To really understand that, you've pretty much just gotta do it.
 
"Just doing it" provided the motivation for me to put together an array of light outfits for the trip. We hoped to show that anglers could enjoy fishing B.C.'s spectacular coast with tackle much smaller than the norm and braided lines testing 6 to 20 pounds. 
 
Plenty of curious glances met me when I carried a half-dozen of these rigs into the 18-foot aluminum center-console boat that would be "ours" for three and a half days of fishing. Sharman began putting them in rod holders, replacing the standard salmon gear provided - single-action "knucklebuster" reels spooled with 30-pound mono on 10-foot noodle-action mooching rods - which we left on the dock. 
 
But now, we interrupt regularly  scheduled programming with this special announcement: There is absolutely nothing "wrong" with traditional gear used here for salmon. On the contrary, it is fun and highly effective. I simply get particular pleasure from tangling with the North Pacific's game fish on the same lighter gear I use back East for redfish or striped bass and the like - and I recommend anyone planning a trip to fish B.C. consider bringing some light rigs.

Salmon Lite
We had no option, however, to replace the standard weather; we made our first run to the grounds at Cheney Point, just 10 minutes away, in a choppy sea and incessant drizzle. Fortunately,  like all the other anglers suited up in bright-red and black flotation suits, in silver-hulled boats bobbing around us, we were well-bundled against the elements.
 
While Sharman took the helm, I grabbed two of our light outfits and tied bead chains from the boat's tackle box to the ends of 20-foot, 25-pound fluoro top shots, which won't slip out of downrigger clips as easily as would our thin, slick braid main lines. To each bead chain, I attached a pre-tied salmon leader with two snelled hooks. By law these hooks are barbless. I then plug-cut several herring from the small cooler (one placed in each boat) where the baits toughened up in salt brine, and rigged them to spin or roll when pulled. It pays to check how the bait moves alongside the boat; the spinning action flashes its bright silver sides from all angles. If the herring fails to rotate, rehook and check it until it has the rotating action long proven to entice salmon.
 
Once snapped into downrigger clips and lowered, the baits began working as we motored along just above idle speed, Sharman steering us around other boats in the pack. Each sported long rods on both sides pulled tight to the water by rigger clips set at 30 to 100 feet. 
 
Of course, that's always the magic question on the salmon grounds: "How deep?" Salmon may feed anywhere from the surface to 200 feet or more, in water just off the kelp to farther out in water hundreds of feet deep. 
 
In the next 10 to 15 minutes, we saw two or three anglers jump when a rod snapped upward, pulled out of the downrigger by a hungry salmon, and a fight was on. The prime depth at which salmon seemed to be feeding was 50 to 70 feet, so I adjusted the riggers accordingly, and we trolled along and waited - but not for long.
 
"Jackie! Jackie!" Sharman shouted as a 6 1/2-foot graphite rod snapped to attention off the right rigger. As Jackie started reeling, the line angle flattened as a silver (coho) salmon headed for the surface - and then the sky, several times. Urgently, Sharman and I raised downrigger balls and cleared lines as the drag on the little spinner, a Penn 260 Slammer, squealed away (as did Jackie). 
 
Ultimately we landed the 12-pound salmon on 10-pound braided line. The fish jumped and ran more than it would have on heavier, thicker mono, so the fight lasted longer than average and proved a bit  trickier. And to me, that translates to being more satisfying. 
 
Another advantage to the thin braid: It slices through the water with less resistance than thicker mono when trolled and tends to cut through the floating kelp that at times becomes unavoidable.
 
We repeated that action several times that morning. As noted, we lost just one fish, and that wasn't the tackle's fault but ours for a bit of complacency in getting rigger cables into the boat quickly. 
 
September is the best time to take on the year's biggest coho (common this late in the season in the 12- to 18-pound range), but not generally prime time for trophy chinook. Still, I boated a lovely 25-pounder on the light braid and could have caught chinook twice that size had we been fishing earlier in the season when big kings prevail.